Weigh rec center plan against other priorities

A plan to expand the Island Recreation Center might be several years down the road, but it's not too early to ask whether Hilton Head Island residents need this level of public recreational facilities and whether the town can afford it.

It's not just the $12 million to $13 million price tag for the entire project, but also the increase in operating costs that comes along with it and what else the money might be spent on.

A study outlining options for expanding and improving the town's recreation facilities called for a property tax increase and higher user fees to pay for everything.

This plan, and all its various phases, will have to be weighed against other more pressing needs for town money.

Two possible projects in particular give us pause: a stand-alone senior center and an outdoor splash pool and play area for children.

The outdoor splash pool should get cut right away. At the very least it should be moved from the first phase to the last phase of building should the town move ahead with this project.

As for a new senior center, the town should look at renovating existing retail space, rather than building a new facility, particularly the more expensive option of building a stand-alone facility away from the existing rec center. The estimated cost to build a 6,000-square-foot building on an acre elsewhere is $985,000. The estimate for renovating existing space of the same size is less than half that. Enough said.

Justification for renovating and upgrading the existing rec center is much easier to make. The center is more than two decades old; the island's permanent population has doubled since it was built.

The first phase of the project calls for renovating offices and restrooms , upgrading and enclosing the outdoor pool and adding parking.

The second phase calls for building a 16,440-square-foot indoor gym. The existing gym is 13,686 square feet.

The third phase calls for building an enclosed 10-lane, 25-yard lap pool with heated water for senior water aerobics and year-round swim lessons.

This process started in 2008 with a very expensive, very unrealistic wish list that came with a $20 million price tag.

Certainly, we're moving in the right direction in terms of scope and price.

The Public Facilities Committee is recommending that Town Council endorse the latest study's findings and direct staff to develop a cost estimate and a scope of work to prepare a master plan.

In other words, we're still a long way from breaking ground. But as this process continues to unfold, officials must be realistic about what the town can afford, especially in light of the public sector's new fiscal reality.